Traveling in Iowa

Spring break is right around the corner and summer is already on many of our minds, so it’s time to start planning. Instead of just hanging out at home, in Iowa City, or traveling halfway across the country, how about taking a short, cheap trip throughout Iowa? Even if you are from Iowa, like me, there is so much Iowa has to offer other than fields of corn.

Art and Food: Des Moines

Pappajohn Sculpture Park photo via

Most Iowans have probably been to the state capital, but even if you have been to Des Moines, there is still so much to see here. Downtown Des Moines is the center of it all. Here you can visit the Capitol Building, Des Moines Art Center, Greater Des Moines Botanical Barden, and if you visit in late spring, you can catch the Des Moines Farmers’ Market. The John and Mary Pappajohn Sculpture Park is another great spot to visit downtown. Here you can see sculptures by Jaume Plensa, Yayoi Kusama, and Judith Shea to name a few. Even if you have already visited the park, there have been recent additions, and you can grab a quick bit at the food trucks that set up shop nearby.

Don’t forget about the Historic Valley Junction a short distance from downtown. In Valley Junction, there are small businesses to fill all your needs: bakeries, restaurants, clothing, antiques, art, jewelry, furniture, and more. Along with that Valley Junction hosts many events and festivals, like the Farmers’ Market and Music in the Junction, Cinco de Mayo Festival,  and Spring Gallery Night to name a few.

Plus, there are plenty of amazing eateries spread across Des Moines. If you are a foodie or a Food Network fiend make sure to check out all of the awesome Des Monies restaurants that have been featured on TV shows, such as ‘Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives,” “Man vs. Food,” “Food Paradise,” “Cheap Eats,” and “Cupcake Wars.” A few eateries that have been featured in the past are Fong’s Pizza, Jethro’s BBQ, Flying Mango, Tacopocalypse, and Crème Cupcake+Dessert.

A Trip Abroad in Iowa: Pella

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Take a trip to Pella to experience a piece of Holland right in Iowa. Pella houses food, events, shops, and beautiful buildings inspired by Dutch culture.

They also host a breathtaking tulip festival annually. The three-day festival held in May features two parades each day, accompanied by dancing and singing in traditional Dutch costumes and the presentation of the Tulip Queen. This event also has a grand variety of tulips, seen on Tulip Avenue and Fair Haven Memorial Garden.

During this time there will be tours galore of the city and historical sites like the Pella Historical Village Museum & Vermeer Windmill Tour (the Vermeer Windmill is the largest working windmill in the U.S.), Tuttle Cabin (the oldest building in Pella), and the Pella Rolscreen Depot Museum. Also, there are presentations on how authentic Dutch foods and coffees are made, and style shows of Dutch clothing.

If you don’t visit during Tulip Days, no worries because many of the attractions are available all year. Other fun stops are Pella’s Joan Kuyper Farver Art Gallery, and historical attractions — including the Pella Opera House that often has performances. The Pella Opera House has performances by the Central College steel band and one-person plays.

For the people who aren’t a fan of cities, Lake Red Rock is a very short distance from Pella so you can get a great dose of Iowa nature nearby. Or you could rent a bike and try the fourteen-mile Volksweg Trail.

Architecture and Movies: Winterset

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You might not have heard of the small town of Winterset, Iowa, but you may be familiar with the phrase, the Bridges of Madison County. Winterset rests in the heart of Madison County, and it features some of the famed covered bridges such as the Roseman Covered Bridge, Hogback Covered Bride, and the Holliwell Covered Bridge. While these 19th-century bridges are beautiful in their own right, they gained fame from Robert James Waller’s novel, The Bridges of Madison County and later the film iteration of the book, which was filmed partly in Winterset.

Also in Winterset, you can check out the museum and birthplace of John Wayne. John Wayne was one of the biggest actors in Western films and was commonly referred to as ‘The Duke.’ His birthplace has been restored but has authentic furnishings. The museum has memorabilia from his movie career, such as the eyepatch he wore in “True Grit.” This small town also has the Iowa Theater, which has a marquee that looks straight from the mid 20thcentury.

On the edge of town, there is the city park with a small maze and the Clark Tower. In the city park, lies another of the famed bridges. If you are looking for even more nature, head to Pammel State Park, a ten-minute drive from the center of town. Also, make sure to stop at the town square to see historic architecture and quaint shops. Winterset may not have the grandeur of Des Moines; however, this town offers the perfect sense of a small town atmosphere and has enough character to easily fill a few days.


Action and Exploration: Dubuque

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Resting on the Mississippi River, this town’s claim to fame is being where Iowa was started. Dubuque is a moderately sized city (around 50,000 people), but there is still a lot to do.

If you want to immerse yourself in nature, visit the Mines of Spain Recreation Area. It offers 20 miles of hiking that includes 1 mile of ADA trail. It’s also historically significant because it’s home to the Julien Dubuque Monument that was built in 1897, memorializing the first European to settle in Iowa.

Crystal Lake Cave is something you would never guess is in Iowa. Here you can get guided tours of underground crystal formations and learn the history of the cave and how the cave formations came to be. If you want something active, you can paddleboard and do yoga on the Mississippi River with Big River SUP.

Dubuque also has plenty of places for the art-inclined to explore like the Dubuque Museum of Art, Gallery C (art gallery), the Grand Opera House and any of the venues that host live performances. For instance, the Five Flags Center, that will be hosting The Band Perry and athletic events like the Harlem Globe Trotters this April; tickets are available now. Dubuque also hosts the Julien Dubuque International Film Festival (JDIFF), which will take place in April. At JDIFF you can see screenings of films, attend panels, and new filmmakers and talent from all over the globe will be recognized along with special celebrity guests.

There are too many cool places to visit, in one short trip but here are a few more to keep on your radar: Fenelon Place Elevator, Dubuque Arboretum & Botanical Gardens, and National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium. For the movie buffs, it’s just a short drive to Dyersville, where the Field of Dreams house is located.

Scenery and Beauty: Decorah

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Decorah is another small town full of charm to add to this list. You can find Decorah in northeastern Iowa. Decorah has an abundance of beautiful natural wonders to visit such as the Ice Cave State Preserve, where you can see a 450-million-year-old cave filled with ice even in the summer. Not only that, but Decorah has waterfalls – something not commonly found in Iowa. Dunnings Spring Park and Malanaphy Springs are must-sees.

The Eagle’s many Iowans have kept up with over the years via live feed built their nest here. When you visit you can see the internet famous family of eagles IRL. Nearby are the Decorah Fish Hatchery and Trout Run Trail for other outdoor adventures such as feeding fish at the hatchery or biking on the paved Trout Run Trail.

Like Pella, Decorah has a European presence in their town, and you can learn more about that at the Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum Visitor Center. While nature is prominent in Decorah you can shop at unique places. One of those being Agora Arts, which is an art studio and gallery that features works of over 250 American artists. Here you can purchase one of a kind prints, pottery, sculptures, and more.

While none of these places will be sun-soaked like the beaches on the coast or have the bustle of a vast city, each of these places offers their own appeal. Plus, each of these towns is less than a day’s journey away. So, for your spring or summer break consider an Iowa-cation.

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